Change the World (an experiment)

Welcome to week one of the second annual novena at the Patron Saint of Architecture. Novenas are an annual chance to look in-depth at issues that affect how we operate in the world as an architect. Last year‘s focus was things that drain our creativity and how to surmount them. This year, I hope your novena journey will lead you to be inspired to make a difference through the built world.

What would happen if the sphere of influence for architecture and urban design was extended to a broader community base? If average citizens, policy leaders, politicians and other community leaders understood how the built environment affects them and the active role they could play in shaping it? I’ve pondered this since college days when I took part in an after school architecture education class for 4th and 5th graders in Pittsburgh, PA and saw how profoundly affected the kids were. I continued working on outreach during the years I worked in Phoenix, AZ through my involvement on the boards of two non-profits, Valley Forward and Phoenix Revitalization Corporation, and the Phoenix Housing and Neighborhoods Commission. Although I’ve moved since to Cleveland, OH and now to Cincinnati, OH, my passion for making a change in my new cities has remained, and I’ve kept up with events that have taken place in these cities since I’ve left.

So I was thrilled when Arturo Vasquez, a friend of the blog and architect in upstate New York approached me with this great idea: Forging a community-wide alliance for architecture. As I thought more about how to attack such an undertaking, it occurred to me that the answer lie in showcasing the good work I know is happening in communities all over the world. The kind of grass-roots efforts that focus on architecture and urban design as vehicles for social and economic change. Thus was born the theme for this year’s novena. Change the World (an experiment) is a deep dive into urban redevelopment from the point of view of architects, planners, elected officials and more who have actively worked to bring about positive change.

You might wonder- why urban design? It’s not technically architecture. However, it forms the matrix in which any project is built. That context that we all value so dearly is found through exploring the culture of a community. Success is a relative definition, and what works in one place can be an utter disaster if tried somewhere else. Therefore, I have focussed on three key issues that I hope you can take with you as you set out to make your own change:

Take time to listen
 No one knows the needs of a community better than those who live there. The worst thing you can do is to fuel mistrust and cynicism by walking into someone’s community and thinking you know how to solve their problems before you even engage with them. It takes a careful process of information gathering and worksessions involving stakeholders in the community to understand the issues and define the right problems to solve. (hint: the things people will initially list are usually symptoms, not the problem itself). One of the best examples I have personally experienced of this was the work of Dr. John McIntosh at the PURL Institute (aka JUDP) at Arizona State University. This group of planners worked aggressively with inner city neighborhoods to help them envision a future for themselves. Through my volunteer work with this amazing program, I learned about their process, which essentially involved collaboration of architects, landscape architects and planners with community stakeholders to create a blueprint for change. The community was then able to take this document, which included everything from the neighborhood’s history to economic and social data to master plans and streetscape drawings and use it as a marketing tool or negotiating tool to approach the city and work to cultivate redevelopment. Nowhere was this change more evident that in Central City South, one of the city’s oldest and poorest neighborhoods. Because of an erroneous interpretation of airport decibel level zones, the neighborhood had been written off by the city for many decades. In fact, the city was hoping to eventually repurpose the land for a different type of non-residential development. The problem was that the residents of Central City South believed in their neighborhood and wanted it to remain intact. Terry Davis, then the CEO of Phoenix Revitalization Corporation (Central City South’s community development corporation) worked tirelessly to save the neighborhood and leverage the process begun by ASU. The result: The City committed to revitalization and worked with the neighborhood to successfully obtain a HOPE VI grant as well as to create an overlay zone to maintain the character of the neighborhood. Central City South has come a long way as you can see in this recent video.

Look for Action Opportunities
While it’s great to launch a comprehensive initiative involving stakeholders, it’s also easy to have the whole process come to a screeching halt due, not so much to lack of interest, but to a lack of belief that this time anything will happen. Even if it’s something as small as organizing volunteers to paint or plant some flowers, having steps that can be immediately implemented keeps the community confident that change will happen and shows the outside world that this neighborhood believes in itself and is going places.

Leverage your efforts
You might think, “I’m just an architect. Even if I organize a group, how do we find opportunities to make a difference?” My answer is to get involved. Volunteering for the sake of volunteering won’t make a lasting change, but aligning your efforts with your city, local AIA chapter, community development corporation, university, or a charity group will. I say this not only from my own experience, but from the insights that the changemakers you will hear from over the next few weeks shared about their efforts. What’s emerged as I’ve talked to these changemakers is a diverse picture of what makes a community and how the unique culture of place informs the approach to design.

Most of all, design can, and does make a difference if only we will let it.